In 1813 the Prefect of the Department Friesland, at that time Baron Verstolk, was supposed to answer some questions from H.E. the Secretary of Interior Affairs of the Empire regarding the inhabitants of the province of Friesland. This resulted in a report which was published at a later date by "het Friesch Genootschap" ("the Frisian Society"):
The board of "het Friesch Genootschap" feels that this important report may already be considered an historic document. The original report still is at the archives of the King’s Commissioner in Friesland. Sir Burmania Baron Rengers -acting two times as Governor- has made a copy by which he honored us and of which one of the members of the Board produced a trustworthy translation. After the judgment of Friesland and the Frisians by travelling foreigners such as von Uffenbach, Niebuhr and Bowring , one may certainly better trust the judgment of a gentleman who has been Governor of the people whose manners and morals are described in the document and who had the opportunity to obtain the most accurate reports from experts on many special subjects. As to the significance of Baron Verstolk to the province in those fearful days as well as the blessed remembrance he left behind: see also the document “Friesland in 1813, part 10 of the Society’s magazine "De Vrije Fries", 1863, pages 219, 245, 270, 318”.
Although the report describes morals and manners in both cities as countryside, this page only quotes a number of subjects which are relevant to life at the rural areas. Afterall, in view of this website that is where our ancestors were born, grew up, married, worked and made a (hard) living as farmhands, servants, gardeners, laborers, etc.
With many thanks to Wybo Palstra, subjects of this summary of Baron Verstolk’s findings are:
- Manners and morals
- Their honesty
- The way farmers and farmhands divide a work-day
- Sunday in the countryside
- Servants changing jobs
- Marriages and weddings
- Maternity visits
- Their language
- The way they raise their children
- The food they eat
The Prefect of the Department Friesland to:
H.E. the Secretary of Interior Affairs of the Empire
August 1, 1813
Your Excellency has, in the letter which was honorably addressed to me on July 11, inst., asked six questions regarding the inhabitants of this departement. After making inquiries which I needed concerning the subjects, it is my pleasure to answer them:
The manners and morals of country people, in particular when living at some distance from cities or larger towns, are generally rude and uncivilized. It is noted that those who live by the most fertile soil are the least polite and obliging compared to the ones living in the more arid areas. In this respect the people of the municipality of Het Bildt are mentioned, a very fertile area in the northern part of the department which includes the towns of St. Annaprochie, St. Jacobiparochie and Vrouwenparochie. This is easily explained: a fertile soil assures the farmer more income than arid soil which circumstance soon leads to an independant feeling that often makes the less educated overrate themselves. Those who feel independant are less inclined to respect others.
The Frisians do not have special feelings towards strangers and almost consider those from neighbouring departments like that. However, they do not have major shortcomings. Although they indulge freely in liquor, most of the time this happens on occasions like holidays and fairs. They are good natured and hardly irritable but once they fly into rage it is difficult to calm them down at which time even the most convincing arguments do not seem to have much effect.
During their quarrels they would attack the opponent with a knife, usually trying to injure the face. In various towns a knife has been spotted hanging some place. Whoever touched the knife was obligated to “cut” with the owner, a way of fighting that had it’s fans and, even though shedding blood each time, occurred quite often without taking previous quarrels into consideration. It may be compared with the English “boxing” although this custom has been diminished over the years and these days is only practiced by sailors.
The Frisians are said to have a stiff head. In a way this may be true but on the other hand it can not be denied that they distinguish themselves by a particular gentleness and obedience to the law. They do demand however, that the law is made clearly known to them and are offered the opportunity to get familiar with it. Furthermore they expect politeness and empathy from the authorities and even the slightest failure of their magistrates through partiality or negligence is reason to rouse complaints to such an extent that even the most dignified official will have a lot of trouble getting them to quiet down. Moreover, they are not impressed by appearances nor pomp and splendour; it will only hurt their feelings.. Gentleness and arguments will do but at the same time this requires an ample knowledge of their customs, their way of reasoning and their language.
They hardly interfere with anything that goes beyond their occupation. They are durably dedicated to their jobs and are content as long as they are not disturbed in their daily life. Ever since the commotion that has occurred in this Department over the past few years, much indifference and ignorance of what is going on in the world has been noticed amongst the Frisians.
At all times they have been known as brave and capable warriers, qualities which have given them quite a reputation, not only during recent history of the new Europe but also during the times of the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages.
Since little effort is spent on their moral education one might state that if they are content and behave (as already mentioned) then their main motivation is found in the custom and consideration that by acting the opposite way they would lose their reputation. Good faith and honesty are among their main virtues. The way they trade in peat, wheat, butter, cheese and other products illustrate this: the seller hardly ever gives a receipt to the buyer as proof that he received the price for the sold product whereas examples that payment was claimed a second time are so rare that they may be considered as non-existing.
Also it is very rare that a young man leaves his girlfriend if he already has given her a promise of marriage or that he will break the promise, especially if the consequences of their relationship has become evident. Among the inhabitants of the country conjugal fidelity is taken very serious and a person who is suspected of violation, is treated with contempt.
The way farmers and farmhands divide a work-day
The farmer and his family get up at 3 - 3.30 a.m. After breakfast they milk the cows, churn butter and make cheese. The farmhands start their work on the fields at 5 a.m. At 8 a.m. -when the first shift is finished- the family get together. Some of them have lunch and take a break till 10 a.m. whereas others eat a sandwich, drink tea and go back to work at 9 a.m. Those who have lunch at 8 a.m. continue their work at 10 a.m. and take an hour rest at 2 p.m. when they have some rye-bread with butter, cheese and tea. The others have lunch at 12 noon and rest till 2 p.m. At 6 p.m. the work-day is over. The family get together again and has supper after which either coffee or tea is served.
The farmer, who does not participate in the field work (nor does his family), enjoys his coffee at 10 or 11 a.m. while those who have lunch at noon, have tea at 3 p.m. Bed time is at 8 - 9 o’clock in the evening. On Sundays lunch is served at 11a.m. instead of 8 a.m. In winter however, lunchtime is set at 12 noon. For the day-laborer, who helps the farmer with threshing the grain, the day starts at 2 - 3 a.m. and he goes home in the afternoon at about the same time.
At many farms it is a tradition for a farmer to organize a feast for his farmhands at the end of the harvest, when the last sheaf is in the barn. On this occasion he does not only invite the farmhands and servants who are on his pay-roll but also the day-laborers, both male and female, who helped harvesting. This feast will be on a Saturday. The guests enjoy raisins, roasted sheepmeat, sweet apples and plums, coffee, jenever (gin) and brandy while the feast goes on till late at night.
Sunday is a day of rest and enjoyment. It is only in exceptional situations that work is done such as in the middle of the hay season or if the rapeseed need to be threshed. Most people go to church once or twice and visit relatives or friends. The single men usually get together in the local inn and amuse themselves with a game of “kaatsen” and “katknuppelen”. The latter activity means that they throw a stick at a hanging wooden barrel in which a cat is locked up. The person whose stick hit the barrel causing it to fall apart and free the cat from its imprisonment, is the winner. Sometimes the stick is thrown at a pole to which a cake is nailed. The person that hits the pole and causes it to fall wins the cake. In winter these games are substituted by playing cards. During these get-togethers much tobacco and jenever is consumed which, with regard to the latter, sometimes ends up in rawdiness.
After supper on Saturday or Sunday, the young men have coffee at the home of their girlfriends. Usually they meet the family and often spent the whole night with their lover, also after the parents and the rest of the family go to sleep. It may be considered as a proof of modesty that this practice rarely has consequences that conflict with good manners and morals.
Servants who have taken a job elsewhere resign on May 12 or 13 and spend a few days in freedom before going back to work again. They use these days for a visit -in large numbers- to the main cities of the Department where they look for entertainment in either the city or its neighborhoods. The better part of the night is spent on fun and at the inns one can hear both the violin and the loud dancing and singing of the youngsters.
Most of the time a wedding is very plain and withing the financial means of the newly-wed’s. Family members and relatives are invited as well as close friends of the bride and groom. At the wedding-party there is singing, dancing and drinking and each guest contributes some sort of gift to the new household.
Nine days after giving birth to a child, a woman -regardless of social class- immediately invites all her female friends for a visit. She welcomes them according to her standard of living but at all times will offer coffee, tea, wheat-bread (sometimes currant-bread), biscuits, butter, cheese and brandy with sugar and raisins.
Usually 15 - 20 women and girls attend these maternity visits and quite often they get so noisy that a visit has an unfavourable effect on the recovery of the mother. Each guest brings along a present such as sugar, coffee, cake or the like.
Funerals are known for their extensive ceremonies and are quite popular. Frequently one hundred people are invited -sometimes even more- and all follow the corps in a procession. The minister of the town leads the men, his spouse leads the women. The family members of the deceased are usually dressed in black and the women wear a large black veil to protect them from possible rain.
If the home of the deceased is located far from the cemetery, the corps is placed on a wagon and close relatives in carriages. Once they have arrived in the town, the coffin is taken to the cemetery. Even then, when the grave is nearby, the whole procession walks around the church one time. In earlier days it was even customary to go around the church three times but nowadays that is not common anymore.Once the coffin has been lowered into the grave and covered with earth, the procession returns to the house of the deceased where various tables were prepared with ham, bacon, currant-bread, biscuits, butter and cheese. The minister and his wife sit next to the family-members while the other guests take a seat where ever they like. Before the meal the minister says a prayer and, after the meal gives a word of thanks. In between he usually makes a funeral speech that honors the deceased. During the meal beer is served, then tea which is followed by jenever and brandy. Relatives who traveled a long way to attend the funeral are taken care of by serving them coffee, jenever and brandy before the meal. After the meal is finished all tables are supplied with pipes and tobacco.
This custom is so common at the countryside that even poor folks -who have problems dressing properly- can not escape from.
There is not much variety in the way Frisians relax. Men who are married or reached a certain age, do little more than pay each other visits or get together at the local inn to smoke their pipes, drink jenever and discuss agricultural matters. They also visit horse- and cattle markets, either as an interest or to buy or sell. Races have their interest too. The young men spend their time with “kaatsen”, “katknuppelen” and skating.
The Frisians are known to be great skaters. Not only do they practice it as a hobby but also as necessity. Indeed, the natural condition of the Department, which most certainly prevents improvement of roads in the clay areas, leaves the inhabitants during the winter hardly any other choice for transportation and communication than the canals. If covered with ice they are used extensively by people with sleds or skates. This leads to the fact that the Frisians head straight forward to their destination and do not distinguish themselves by the elegance of skating but rather their high speed. As far as this speed is concerned examples are given which are almost miraculous, such as the one about the mayor of Bolsward who -crossing the Zuiderzee- skated from Den Haag to Bolsward in one day. It should be noted that the skates which are used in Friesland are different from the ones used in other Departments. They are flat, horizontal, short and have no decorations.
The women also take part in this practice. Races have even been noticed between women-skaters after which a price was awarded to the first woman reaching a certain point.
More or less even the upper-class enjoys this pleasure. The fairs in Friesland are quite similar to those in other Departments: many rows of booths and stands with merchandise of all kinds, rope-walkers, jugglers, illusionists, quacks and everything else which may interest the crowd. Each city and town has a fair once per year and they are well attended, in particularly the one at the capital of the Department which is a very important one. Families from out of the city leave their homesteads for a few days to participate in the turbulent entertainment.
During the fair the morality is less strict which frequently leads to licentious behaviour of the lower class.
The language which is spoken in the Department could be subject of many remarks and much research. Indeed the people of the rural areas speak a type of language which is hardly understandable for those living in the cities. They speak the language but cannot write it and only scholars write in this language. Moreover, the language is suitable only for simple and general purposes. Since the Dutch language is taught at school, the language only perpetuates by using it. Almost every Canton has it’s own pronunciation and it is thought that the present language is a corruption of the old, original language.
The way they raise their children
Mother’s milk is the most important (if not the only) food of the children for the first year and sometimes even longer. Frequently it is noticed that a mother nurses her children untill the second, even third, year while at the same time the children already are eating the same food as their parents and can walk by themselves. Generally however, they are breast fed a year to a year and a half. Mothers who, due to weakness or other reasons, are not able to nurse their children, feed them with a mixture of milk and biscuits or flour from buckwheat mixed with milk or boiled with groats and buttermilk.
The clothes of the children are usually warm and made of a rather thick material, that is to say if the circumstances of the parents are not too poor. Depending on how they develop, the children stay at home until age 5, 6 or 7, under the supervision of the mother who if she needs to work on the fields will take them along in order to keep an eye on them.
Education of the boys
Children that reached age 5, 6 or 7 are usually sent to school where they learn to read and write, sometimes learn to add and practice singing psalms. Furthermore they learn questions and answers by heart concerning the principles of the Christian religion, eventhough they may not actually comprehend them. The time spent in school depends on the circumstances and attitudes of the parents and ranges from one to four years.
By the time the son of a day-laborer can ride a horse, he will work for a farmer during the summer season. Other boys, whose father belong to the farming class without being in a favorable circumstance, have to work at the same age and do labor according to their ability such as managing a horse and plow. When the fieldwork is over the boys return to school during winter. A boy who -depending on the progress of his strength- has worked three or four summers for a farmer will be employed by the same for the whole year. From that moment he is supposed to take care of himself and it is very unusual if the parents still need to support him. Eventually he gains more knowledge about farming and gradually his wages increase which at the age of twenty years may amount to 210 florins.
Sons of farmers who still live at home and do the work which otherwise would be done by farmhands, are raised the same way. As soon as they are able, they are taught what they need to know about farming while their parents, provided they have the means, will buy (or rent) them a farm of their own thus enabling them to look after themselves and their needs.
Education of the girls
The education of the girls hardly differs from the boys. If their parents live in poverty, the girls only go to school until they are able to contribute to the family’s income. The opportunity to work occurs at an early age in those areas where farming need many hands and if these hands are available. Their duties include digging potatoes, picking fruit and other activities that can be left to them. Girls do not attend school as long as the boys because in a shorter period of time they have learned to help their mother doing the household chores. Furthermore it doesn’t take long before they know how to spin which will contribute to the income of the family. Not much time is spent teaching them how to sew and knit and for this reason only a small minority specialize in making clothes in order to make a living. At the age of 12, 13 or 14 years the girls are sent to serve a farmer and soon they will earn enough to support themselves. Daughters of farmers in poorer circumstances, fulfil the task of servant to their parents. They learn how to milk cows and make butter. Their education is considered to be complete once they are able to run a farm-household on their own.
In some areas the Sunday evening is spent on teaching school lessons, thereby giving the youngsters the opportunity to gain some knowledge that they had to miss in their childhood. Parents who want their children to make confession of faith according to the traditions of the reformed religion send them to the minister of the congregation at the age of 14 - 15 years where they learn items of the faith by heart. However, in general, one may note that not much care is taken regarding the moral education of children in the countryside.
In general the people in the rural areas feed themselves with substantial food such as raw, green and white peas, potatoes, buckwheat porridge or else groats-and buckwheat flour, but rarely wheat flour. Groats flour is used to bake cookies and make a dish called “Postroo”, a mixture of flour and milk which is sturred to a solid consistancy. This porridge is served with a sauce of milk and butter or, if it can be afforded, a sauce made of grease mixed with syrup. In summer they eat a lot of large beans and to a lesser extent carrots, turnip and cabbage.
The daily bread is rye-bread. Also one eats wheat bread baked with bran which is known as “grofweienbolle”. Often the bread is sliced, softened in hot milk and eaten with the aforementioned sauce. This meal is served at many farms on Sunday. Less fortunate farmhands and laborers also eat wheat bread some times with raisins but to them this is rather an exceptional meal than daily bread. Furthermore, beef and bacon are part of the menu but lamb is not common. In Spring calves that do not qualify for breeding are slaughtered after feeding them with buttermilk for some days. Pork is not used much.
In fall the farmer slaughters enough cattle to last his family for a whole year. Part of the meat and bacon is salted and pickled while other meat is salted more than average and hung in the chimney to smoke it. The pickled meat is eaten in winter, and the smoked meat is eaten during summer. Apart from the other food as described above, one usually has two meals per day consisting of porridge, groats and buttermilk. If there is a feast, farmers who are well-to-do serve wine, plums, sweet apples, roasted veal and lamb along with thick cake made of wheat flour and raisins which is known as “boffert”.
The day-laborer who has to support his, often large, family eats no other food besides rye-bread and potatoes. The bread is served with a little butter or a chunk of cheese, while the potatoes usually are served with salt and mustard, seldom with gravy.
Common drinks are coffee and tea but not made very strong. Tea is mainly used by the well-to-do farmers and is of an excellent quality, comparable to the tea of the civilian classes. Most of the time the coffee is weakened with chicory. At present the high prices of coffee is reason to substitute it with an artificial coffee composed of branded rye and wheat mixed with chicory. Both drinks are used two or three times per day in large quantities.
Beer is not consumed except special occasions such as the rapeseed and hay season. Besides coffee and tea the most common drink is buttermilk.
Many thanks to Mitch Berkenpas for editing this English version.